With respect to Socrates, my unexamined life is not worth living. The front room is the face we show everyone but we hide our true self in the back room.
We have been looking for reasons to return to Brooklyn Diner since eating there briefly. It was on the way to see Valerie June at Carnegie Hall. (If you haven’t heard her yet, please make the acquaintance. You’ll be glad you did.)
At the time it was late and we had already eaten earlier, really just warming ourselves inside this diner until the concert began. We had delicious fried pastrami rolls and I had an egg cream. This was a place to remember.
So fast-forward several months and a concert at Radio City Music Hall in our sights. I drove in after work and met my bride at a used-books, CDs and movies store called Book-Off. I could spend hours in there.
From there we headed for Brooklyn Diner’s West 57th location. There are two; the other being in Times Square, which is just asking for trouble. And we had such a nice time at the other location why change horses in mid-stream?
Semi-crowded but not annoyingly so, we walk into a middle booth. Arturo, our waiter, approaches us for drinks orders. An orange juice for her and a Black Cherry Sling for me. Before my bride, I never imagined ordering a cocktail or mixed drink. The most adventurous I ever got was a vodka tonic. How she opened my eyes to otherworldly refreshment!
The Sling is refreshing indeed; a mixture of bourbon and black cherry soda and a cherry. I get two. This is only my second foray into bourbon country. That’s right. The first was the recent Oak Alley plantation mint julep. Since that proved successful, I once again dip my toes.
No fried pastrami rolls on the menu this time. My bride screws up her face in frustration. I console her with the cheddar-cheesed creamed spinach. Piping hot and browned on top enclosed in a mini casserole dish, our taste buds start their engines.
Then onto the burgers and pastrami on rye. Her bacon cheeseburger is mouth-wateringly juicy with errant drips of goodness across the table when she graciously shares. The bread is especially delightful, solid enough to withstand the juice and soft enough to complement the tender burger. Boom.
According to their menu the pastrami is “house-made & cured for 7 days, and then smoked with white hickory for 4 hours & steamed for 4 hours”. Jagged chunks of meat and fat pile high on rye. A dish of spicy mustard. A bowl of carrot coleslaw. And a pickle. All meals should be so simple.
My bride wisely eschews her side of French fries (so delicious!) to save room for dessert. Cheesecake, lemon meringue or chocolate pudding pie. She’s partial to key lime and the cheesecake is just too much so we go with Chocolate Pudding Pie. A Herculean wall of creamy rich Valrhona chocolate and whipped cream. A dessert that deserves to be conquered.
Brooklyn Diner is just far enough away to walk off dinner. As we approach the classic art deco façade of Radio City Music Hall my bride squeezes my hand harder and giddily smiles. This will be her first time here. I have been several times, my first a memorable Erykah Badu concert. We are swallowed up in the crush of people at the intersection.
My bride enters the palatial reception area and stops, stunned. Delight fills her face while she drinks it all in. Her wonder, so pure and innocent, makes me fall for her all over again. Then, of course, snap snap snap her camera goes. “Stand in front of there, bebehhh!” she calls out, cheerily.
We are in traditionally third tier nosebleed section; however the curved shape of the theater draws us closer to the stage. There are no bad seats at Radio City.
I saw Belle & Sebastian in 2002 during their tour for the soundtrack they did to Todd Solondz’s film Storytelling. A brilliant, shimmering concert with horns, cello, violins, piano, guitar and of course Stuart, Stevie’s and Isobel’s voice. Isobel Campbell left the tour and ultimately, the band a week later. When she left there was definitely a void. She provided a lot of the gentle heart with her voice and cello. Just look at her work on “Family Tree” from Fold Your Hands Child, You Look like a Peasant.
Campbell had been romantically involved with band creator Stuart Murdoch for several years. Upon their breakup in 2001, Murdoch penned a song “I’m Waking Up to Us” on the eponymous album, a beautiful but nasty rose with thorns directed at Campbell. The departure was inevitable, though some of my favorite Belle & Sebastian songs come from that album drawn no doubt from relationship pain.
So, here we are six albums and 13 years later. Murdoch and Stevie Jackson’s energy bounds across the stage like a collie. They rip through sixteen songs and a couple of encores. Significantly less than the previous concert possibly due to longer versions of songs.
My bride had never heard of them before she met me and over the years has been slowly getting into the band. She really likes the most recent album, Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance, and is happy they play some of those songs including “Perfect Couples” “The Party Line” and the opener “Nobody’s Empire”.
Another huge difference from the previous concert is noise. At times it is deafening. When Isobel left, the band appeared to shift to more pop-friendly, dance-able songs though managed to sustain enough Scottish twee from Murdoch’s gentle falsetto. At the concert it is much more testosterone-heavy, surviving band member Sarah Martin backing up, though at times inaudible.
Murdoch and Jackson appear to rely on the heavy background sound mixing, drums, video screen behind and energetic young dancing girls acting out the songs to hide less than pure voices. The dancing girls are especially charming during “Dear Catastrophe Waitress”. Like I said, they make up for it in enthusiasm, Murdoch loudly serenading jubilant front row members, even walking up and down the aisles of the orchestra section for “Dirty Dream Number Two”.
Jackson writes most of the songs these days and has come to share the control once entirely on Murdoch’s slight, vegetarian-strict shoulders. Using the backdrop video images of choreographed movements by couples in a room, Jackson especially channels “his inner Grateful Dead” with a guitar-crunching, extra-long version of “Perfect Couples”. And in switching gears later on, “in 1998, a great year for country-rock” breaks out a rockabilly version of “The Wrong Girl”.
Slowing things down, Murdoch engages the audience with between-song banter, like his love for the New York Mets and origins of songs. “I don’t usually say where particular songs come from, and my wife is so upset she couldn’t be here tonight, but if I didn’t say that I wrote this song for her she’d definitely kill me.” And launched into the silly, romantic ballad “Piazza, New York Catcher” from Dear Catastrophe Waitress.
No true Belle & Sebastian concert would be complete without their most popular song, “The Boy with the Arab Strap. They have played it 256 times, courtesy of setlist.fm, more than twice as much as other songs. It is just as playful, crowd-pleasing, and getting the audience into the aisles to dance as it should be. It is also a poignant reminder for the band that always planned to break up after a few albums. The Boy with the Arab Strap being their third, an album where they were just hitting their stride.
They sing songs from eight of their albums, going back to 1996 in their debut album; Tigermilk for “The State I Am In”. Their second album from the same year, If You’re Feeling Sinister was the one that did it for me. Each song was so beautiful it just broke my heart. Last night they played the title song as well as “Judy and the Dream of Horses” for the encore.
For the first encore song, they bring out Dee Dee from The Dum Dum Girls (also a fun, cool band!) to sing the female verses of “Lazy Line Painter Jane”, a song once a signature duet with Campbell now rarely sung. “You’ll have a boy tonight! Maybe you will have a girl tonight on the last bus out of town!”
Though a very different experience than last time, the added bonus is my bride’s reaction to everything. She stomps, claps, sways and cuddles during the slow songs like “The Cat with the Cream”. “That was so incredible!” she exclaims, beaming. Hoarse from hooting and yelling the lyrics, I manage a weak croak, “Glad you liked it, angel.”
On the drive home, she maintains the thrill of finally seeing a concert at Radio City Music Hall. I am certain we will be back. Me and my bride… we’re only getting started.